"I have not failed," Thomas Edison declared during his search for a workable filament for the electric lightbulb. "I have successfully discovered 1,200 materials that won't work."
Such are the endearing aphorisms that surround entrepreneurial failure. They inspire, certainly, but they hardly enlighten. What is failure and its aftermath really like? Here are moments that have been experienced by a handful of entrepreneurs.
Journey into fear
Matt Davis couldn't sleep. His fledgling publishing business had failed, and he had an appointment in bankruptcy court the next day. "For some reason," he says, "I was fixated on: Just what do you wear to bankruptcy court?" In the morning, he selected something genteel enough to look respectful yet shabby enough to look penniless. "You really feel like you've done something criminal," says Davis of his agitated mind state. "When you have to stand up before the judge and declare, 'I am a failure, I can't pay my debts,' it gets very overpowering. The creditors are there, and you feel like they must be horribly mad at you." But the most unsettling part, says Davis, was that they weren't. "It's a very clinical process for everyone else, like renewing a driver's license," he says. "They're just nodding their heads appropriately, filling out their forms. None of the emotion that you carry into the courtroom is brought there by anybody else."
With his Seagate Technology, which is the largest disk-drive manufacturer in the world, Alan Shugart sits atop the Silicon Valley totem pole. But he's taken his time getting there. When his first company, Shugart Associates, hit the skids in 1974 and his venture capitalists fired him, Shugart coped with the failure by heading for the beach -- for about five years. He bought a commercial fishing boat in Santa Cruz, Calif., and brought in enough salmon to help with his monthly Porsche payments. He also purchased a bar "right next to the unemployment office," which was convenient, since he drew unemployment benefits for several months. "Financially it was a disaster, but it paid for the beer," says Shugart, who was then in his mid-forties. "And my pool game got really good."
Rags to riches to rags ... to riches
Vilnis Ezerins came from humble origins, became a millionaire, and then proceeded to lose it all -- by age 24. Self-supporting since the age of 14, Ezerins began his career raising herbs and spices to deliver around his neighborhood. In his teenage years, he started a printing business, a used-car business, and a mail-order company, until, at the age of 18, his net worth hit half a million dollars. As a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he owned two houses, three snowmobiles, four cars, and a boat. Labeling him a wunderkind, banks began throwing money at him, which he used for speculative land deals. But in the early 1980s, the land boom went bust, and Ezerins declared personal bankruptcy. His new home? A welfare slum in Springfield, Mass. "I'd make a big pot of spaghetti," says Ezerins, "and live off it for the rest of the week." The rent was $225 a month, but he told his roommate it was $400. That way, Ezerins only had to pay $25 out of his own pocket. Ezerin's new company, AccuData America, an Inc. 500 marketing data distributor, has put him back in the seven-figure club. So he's fessed up and reimbursed the roommate, right? Says Ezerins: "No."
Will the real risk-takers please stand up?
Above all, failure leaves people with a heightened perspective of what it is to be an entrepreneur. In the case of Mike Campbell, whose software business went under in the early 90s, it made him a lot less tolerant of pretenders. "It is amazing how many people think they're entrepreneurs," says Campbell, almost scornfully. "They say, 'you know, I had that great idea.' A great idea is the easy part -- it's strapping yourself to this sucker and pulling the rip cord. Take your idea, take your credit cards, prepare to mortgage your house, put your family at risk. Then come back and talk to me about being an entrepreneur."
Jerry Useem was an associate editor at Inc. magazine when this article was published. His story, "Failure: The Secret of My Success," is about the best ways to handle a dying business and is featured in the May 1998 issue of Inc.